The Covert War Against Native Americans

The following article by Ward Churchill originally appeared in Covert Action Information Bulletin, Number 24 (Summer 1985), pp. 16-21. As always, reposting here is for critical discussion and does not imply endorsement or affiliation by Anti-Imperialism.com or the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Movement.

There is a little considered aspect of the covert means through which the United States maintains its perpetual drive to exert control over the territory and resources of others. It concerns, however, matters internal rather than external to the geographical corpus of the U.S. itself. It seems appropriate to quote a man deeply involved in the struggle for African liberation, Kwame Toure’ (formerly known as Stokley Carmichael). In a speech delivered at the Yellow Thunder demonstrations in Rapid City, South Dakota, on October 1, 1982, he said:

We are engaged in a struggle for the liberation of ourselves as people. In this, there can be neither success nor even meaning unless the struggle is directed toward the liberation of our land, for a people without land cannot be liberated. We must reclaim the land, and our struggle is for the land—first, foremost, and always. We are people of the land.So in Africa, when you speak of “freeing the land,” you are at the same time speaking about the liberation of the African people. Conversely, when you speak of liberating the people, you are *necessarily* calling for the freeing of the land.But, in America, when we speak of liberation, what can it mean? We must ask ourselves, in America, who are the people of the land? And the answer is—and can *only* be—the first Americans, the Native Americans, the American Indian. In the United States of America, when you speak of liberation, or when you speak of freeing the land, you are *automatically* speaking of the American Indians, whether you realize it or not. Of this, there can be no doubt.

Those in power in the United States understand these principles very well. They know that even under their own laws aboriginal title precedes and preempts other claims, unless transfer of title to the land was is or agreed to by the original inhabitants. They know that the only such agreements to which they can make even a pretense are those deriving from some 371 treaties entered into by the U.S. with various Indian nations indigenous to North America.

Those in power in America know very well that, in consolidating its own national landbase, the United States has not only violated every single one of those treaties, but that it remains in a state of perpetual violation to this day. Thus, they know they have no legal title—whether legality be taken to imply U.S. law, international law, Indian law, natural law, or all of these combined—to much of what they now wish to view as the territoriality of the United States proper.

Finally, they are aware that to acquire even a semblance of legal title, title which stands a chance of passing the informed scrutiny of both the international community and much of its own citizenry, the U.S. must honor its internal treaty commitments, at the very least. Herein lies the dilemma: In order to do this, the U.S. would have to return much of its present geography to the various indigenous nations holding treaty-defined and reserved title to it (and sovereignty over it). The only alternative is to continue the violation of the most fundamental rights of Native Americans while pretending the issues do not exist. Of course, this is the option selected—both historically and currently—by U.S. policy-makers.

The Native American Movement

It is precisely from the dynamics of this situation that overt liberation organizations such as the American Indian Movement (AIM), the International Indian Treaty Council, and Women of All Red Nations were born. Insofar as their struggles are based in the reaffirmation of the treaty rights of North America’s indigenous nations, theirs is a struggle for the land. In essence, their positions imply nothing less than the literal dismantlement of the modern American empire from the inside out.

The stakes involved are tremendous. The “Great Sioux” of Lakota Nation alone holds clear treaty rights over some 5% of the area within the present 48 contiguous states. The Anishinabe (Chippewa) are entitled to at least another 4%. The Dine’ (Navajo) already hold between 3% and 4%. Most of California has been demonstrated to have been taken illegally from nations such as the Pomo and Luisano. Peoples such as the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Pasamadoquoddi—long believed to have been exterminated—have suddenly rematerialized to press treaty-based and aboriginal claims to much of New England. The list is well over 300 names long. It affects every quarter of the contemporary United States.

Vast Natural Resources At Stake

Today, more than 60% of all known U.S. uranium reserves are under reservation lands, and another 10-15% lies under contested treaty areas. Similarly, approximately one-third of all minable low-sulphur coal lies under reservations, while the figure easily exceeds 50% when treaty areas are lumped in. With natural gas, the data are about 15% under reservations, 15% under contested lands. The same holds true for oil. Almost all American deposits of minable zeolites are under reservation land. Very significant strategic reserves of bauxite, copper, iron, and other crucial minerals are also at issue.

Giving all this up—or even losing a modicum of control over it—is an obviously unacceptable proposition to U.S. policy makers and corporate leaders. In order to remain a superpower (in both the military and economic senses of the term), the U.S. must tighten rather than relax its grip upon its “assets.” Hence, given its priorities, America has had little choice but to conduct what amounts to a clandestine war against American Indians, especially of the AIM variety.

The Propaganda War

In pursuing such a policy the U.S. power elite has replicated the tactics and conditions more typically imposed on its colonies abroad. First, there is the matter of “grey and black propaganda” through which U.S. covert agencies, working hand in glove with the mainstream media, distort or fabricate information concerning the groups they have targeted. The function of such a campaign is always to deny with plausibility public sympathy or support to the groups in question, to isolate them and render them vulnerable to physical repression or liquidation.

As concerns AIM, grey propaganda efforts have often centered upon contentions (utterly unsubstantiated) that the “Indian agenda” is to dispossess non-Indians of the home-owner, small farmer or rancher type living within the various treaty areas.

In terms of black propaganda, there have been a number of highly publicized allegations of violence which, once disproven, were allowed to die without further fanfare. This has been coupled to “leaks” from official government sources that AIM is a “terrorist” organization.

The propaganda efforts have, in large part, yielded the desired effect, souring not only the average American citizen’s perception of AIM, but—remarkably—that of the broader U.S. internal opposition as well. The latter have been so taken in upon occasion as to parrot the government/corporate line that Indian land claims are “unrealistic,” “not feasible,” and ultimately a “gross unfairness to everyone else.”

Repression and Liquidation

With the isolation of Native American freedom fighters effectively in hand, the government’s clandestine organizations have been free to pursue programs of physical repression within America’s internal colonies of exactly the same sort practiced abroad. At one level, this has meant the wholesale jailing of the movement’s leadership. Virtually every known AIM leader in the United States has been incarcerated in either state or federal prisons since (or even before) the organization’s formal emergence in 1968, some repeatedly. This, in combination with accompanying time spent in local jails awaiting trial, the high costs of bail and legal defense, and the time spent undergoing a seemingly endless succession of trials, is calculated both to drain the movement’s limited resources and to cripple its cadre strength.

Even more directly parallel to the performance of U.S. covert agencies abroad is physical repression conducted at another level, that of outright cadre liquidation. For example, in the post-Wounded Knee context of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation,  independent researcher Candy Hamilton established that at least 342 AIM members and supporters were killed by roving death squads aligned with and supported by the FBI. (The death squads called themselves GOONs, “Guardians of the Oglala Nation.”) This was between 1973 and 1976 alone.

In proportion to the population of the reservation, this is a rate of violent death some 12 or 14 times greater than that prevailing in Detroit, the so-called “murder capital of America.” In a more political sense, it is greater than the violent death rate experienced in Uruguay during the anti-Tupamaro repression there, in Argentina under the worst of its succession of juntas, or in El Salvador today. The statistics are entirely comparable to what happened in Chile in the immediate aftermath of Pinochet’s coup.

As is currently the case in El Salvador, where the Reagan administration contends that the police are understaffed and underequipped to identify and apprehend death squad members, the FBI—which is charged with major crimes in reservation areas—pleaded “lack of manpower” in solving the long list of murders involving AIM people. (The FBI saturation of the Pine Ridge area was greater on a per capita basis than anywhere else in the country during this period.

More to the point than this transparent rationale for inaction is the case of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. A young Micmac woman working with AIM on Pine Ridge, Aquash was told outright during the fall of 1975 by federal agent David Price (who was involved in the assassinations of Mark Clark and Fred Hampton [Black Panther leaders] in Chicago in 1969, and who has been involved more recently in paramilitary operations against the Republic of New Afrika) that “You’ll be dead within a year.” Aquash’s body was found less than six months later, dumped in a ravine in the northeast quadrant of the reservation. A pathologist hired by the government determined her death as being due to “exposure.” An independent pathologist readily discovered she had died as a result of a .38 calibre slug entering the back of her head at a pointblank range.

Nor is Pine Ridge the only locale in which this clandestine war has been conducted. Richard Oaks, leader of the 1970 occupation of Alcatraz Island by “Indians of All Tribes,” was gunned down in California the following year. Shortly thereafter, Hank Adams, a fishing rights leader in Washington state, was shot in the stomach. Larray Cacuse, a Navajo AIM leader, was shot to death in Arizona in 1972. In 1979, AIM leader John Trudell was preparing to make a speech in Washington, DC. He was told by FBI personnel that, if he gave his speech, there would be “consequences.” Trudell not only made his speech, calling for the U.S. to get out of North America and detailing the nature of federal repression in Indian country, he burned a U.S. flag as well. That night, his wife, mother-in-law, and three children were “mysteriously” burned to death at their home on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada.

Conclusion

What has been related here is but a tiny fraction of the full range of events—facts intended only to illustrate the much broader pattern of covert activities directed against the American Indian Movement for well over a decade. It is hoped that the reader will attain a greater appreciation for the similarities between the nature of U.S. clandestine operations abroad and those conducted at home; the parallels are not always as figurative as is commonly supposed.

Further, it is hoped that the reader might become more attuned to the “why” of such seemingly aberrant circumstances: that the liberation  of Native Americans fits well within the more global anti-imperialist struggles waged elsewhere, as the quotation from Kwame Toure’ indicates. AIM presents the same sort of threat to the U.S. status quo as do land-based movements in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

This situation, so little known in America, has been recognized in locations as diverse as Nicaragua, Vietnam, Libya, Iran, Cuba, Mozambique, Ireland, Palestine, and Switzerland, through the work of the International Indian Treaty Council. It is high time that it was fully realized by those among the broad progressive opposition within the United States itself.